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How X Factors in the Equation

A new roller coaster at Six Flags suspends riders beside the track. Fast? Yes. But it's over fast, too.

January 17, 2002|ROBERT NILES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Hurtling face-first, spread-eagled, 200 feet toward the ground below, I wondered just why it was I'd been looking forward to Jan. 12. Wasn't there something else I could have been doing right now instead?

Like, well, anything else?

Instead, several thousand of us had queued up for the first day of Six Flags Magic Mountain's new roller coaster, X. You can't miss it on the drive into the park--its twisted nest of purple metal, held up by a small forest of yellow support towers, is the first thing you see as you pull in from Magic Mountain Boulevard. And that mess of metal remained the focus of attention for several families and groups of friends making the walk from the parking lot to the front gate an hour before the park opened last Saturday: "Look, that's the new ride."

"Do you think it's scary?"

As the chatter continued, a riderless train appeared on X's track. The racket of the coaster making its way up the lift added to the din on the walkway. For nearly a minute, the train crawled to the top of the lift. By the time it reached the top, everyone on the walkway had noticed it. The train crested, the lift fell silent, and instantly, so did the crowd. All stared quietly as it plunged 90 degrees, 200 feet to the earth. Then, at once, reaction:: "Oh ... my ... God."

X is a first-of-its-kind "4D" model from noted coaster designer Arrow Dynamics. Riders on X don't sit on top of the coaster track, or suspended underneath it, as they would on traditional coasters. Instead, they ride on the side of the track, in seats that rotate 360 degrees during the ride. And, if that weren't enough, there's that face-first initial drop.

OK, I'll fess up. The first time I heard about this design, I envisioned spinning in a clothes dryer that had been dropped on to a track. Fortunately, X isn't nearly so upsetting.

But it's hard to know what to expect from X as you approach the ride. Its queue is as plain and boring as all the others at Six Flags parks. Let Disney or Universal worry about storytelling; riding a coaster at a Six Flags park is about the visceral experience. Even with few expectations, I was disappointed--waiting is not so bad if you can at least watch the show. The enormous lift hill and loading platform obscure almost all of the track from view. The next right over, the Viper is visible, but X remains a mystery.

But then, half the fun of a roller coaster is the wait--having time to get nervous. That's what Sitel Bhaget was doing with a little help from her friends. They fingered the Montebello teen as the chicken of their group after she backed out of a bungee-jumping trip and expressed second thoughts about riding X. As her friends laughed, others in line found people in their own groups to harass, passing time during a wait that had grown to over an hour--just 40 minutes after X opened. And it's not close to the summer crowd crush.

X's name is meant to evoke stereotypical teen obsession with all things "extreme." But the name also works for the mathematically inclined, as the classic expression of a variable. It's appropriate for a ride that feels like an ever-changing highlight reel of several other coasters. X's rotating seats allow the ride to switch from a backward coaster to a traditional front-facing one without jarring stops or momentum changes.

For me, the panic of the initial plunge yielded quickly to exhilaration, as X swept me through its flips, loops and turns, with seat rotations smartly coordinated to each twist of the track. And then, it was over. That seemingly endless, 52-second trip up the lift yielded a ride of just over 45 seconds. Too little time for so much. Only on the turnaround did I get a chance to breathe and anticipate the next drop and twist.

It's not enough. X delivers plenty of action, but beyond its initial drop, the ride is all frenzy. Each element is over and you're onto the next before you get a chance to absorb what's happened.

Almost no riders left with green faces or unsure steps. And not one of more than two dozen asked at the exit had anything negative to say. Sure, the ride could have used a few more breathers, to set up and sustain the drama. But X's terrific first plunge and technical innovations have already marked it as a welcome addition to Southern California's coaster collection.

Robert Niles is a senior producer at latimes.com. He can be reached at robert.niles@latimes.com.

Six Flags Magic Mountain, Magic Mountain Parkway, Valencia. Call for hours: (818) 367-5965. $43; age 55 and older and children under 4 feet, $21.50; age 2 and younger, free.

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